Instead of combing databases for clues about woolly mammoth DNA, scientists literally combed the extinct mammals, and the technique has led to a breakthrough: genetic information reconstructed from a hair shaft. Long considered an inferior source for DNA mining, hair turns out to benefit from the presence of keratin, a plastic-like protein that helps preserve genetic material, the BBC reports.
The technique may shed light on the evolution of elephants, which descended from mammoths, as well as the genetics of other extinct species. Researchers now see museum collections as potential wellsprings of information about such animals as rhinos, horses, and even humans. "It's not just animals," said one researcher. "There are a lot of mummies around the world with hair."